The war that has been ravaging South Sudan since 2013 has forced 3.5 million people to flee their homes: 1.7 million escaped to other countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda) and 1.9 million sought refuge in other parts of the country. Figures from UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) are terrible. And even more so when you think that behind those numbers are personal tales of violence, exhaustion, uprooting, family strife and, above all, poverty. Poverty that, as the war continues, risks self-perpetuation, creating still more poverty.
Inside the camps the refugees live in tents and shelters built with the few materials available: a bit of wood, mud, some canvas and straw. Entire families often share the same tent. Food is distributed by the large international aid organizations: the refugees are given cereals, like sorghum, lentils, oil and salt. Water is available only in some parts of the camps, often far away.
In the camps the health situation is always precarious. Widespread are malaria, typhoid, AIDS, yellow fever and other diseases. Disease decimates the population. People are unable to protect and cure themselves. “Inactivity weighs heavily on the lives of refugees,” explain the Jesuits working in the Maban camp, which in the northern part of the country hosts some 200,000 refugees. “Very few projects and activities are taken ahead by aid organizations and, when you consider the enormous number of refugees, relatively few of them are reached and able to make use of aid services. Those suffering the most are the young people, who often have no idea how to occupy their time and keep their hopes for a better future alive.” This leads many young people to drink heavily and take drugs.
In this context, the Jesuits have chosen to work not on the emergency per se but on rebuilding the society to lay the bases for the country’s future reconstruction. Starting from education. “In 2011 only 27% of South Sudan’s population could read and write,” the Jesuits told us. “The Juba government intended to reduce illiteracy by 50% but the war has made this impossible and now South Sudan has the highest illiteracy rate in the world.”
In the camps there are no places to teach or teaching materials or, above all, teachers. “When a teacher earns 270 South Sudanese pounds and a soldier a thousand it’s obvious that many prefer to enlist. And so barracks are crowded and classrooms empty. A country like this has no prospects and will pay the price for this in future,” stress the Jesuits. “If the South Sudan leadership thinks that education is costly, they should see the cost of ignorance!”
In Maban the Jesuit Refugee Service, in cooperation with the Magis Foundation (the Italian Jesuits’ NGO) has launched a project that offers English-language courses at various levels, educational workshops for children and young people so they can develop skills, meetings on socially important issues (such as alcohol and drug abuse), and psychosocial assistance.
If these are the conditions in which refugees live inside South Sudan, the conditions of those who have left the country are even worse. “In Uganda it’s an emergency,” says Lorena Ortiz, a Comboni Missionary Sister who works in a camp in the Moyo district inhabited by 180,000 women, children, elderly and handicapped persons. “ There’s a lack of everything. The shelters are flimsy. The kids are unable to either study or work. Healthcare is minimal.”
In this camp, located on semi-swampland, the United Nations provides food, a number of NGOs organize educational courses and others offer psychological help. The Comboni Missionary Sisters have organized a micro-loan project to help women set up commercial and farming enterprises. But their main task is to provide spiritual and humanitarian aid. “Life in the camps is de-humanizing,” Sister Lorena goes on to say.” “There is nothing here. Some people manage to cope but the weakest succumb. Especially the elderly, the sick and the disabled. We try to help, offering them care. After a few months the tarpaulins the United Nations provides for shelters are worn and torn. We help people rebuild these shelters because when it rains the ground floods and you need a shelter that keeps out the rain and offers at least some protection.”
When the refugees began to arrive, Uganda initially responded well but then the problems started. “In the first few months everything went well,” said Sister Lorena. “The Ugandans opened their doors to the South Sudanese. They allowed them to settle on land not destined for farming and helped them in various ways. But then grievances arose. Some local groups began to complain that the South Sudanese were given aid while they received nothing. That the refugees occupied the land rent-free. Some obliged the NGOs to hire only Ugandans. Unfortunately grievances exist. Although, it should be said, most Ugandans still have a positive attitude.”